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Archive for the ‘Cultural seasonalities’ Category

A full year has come and gone since Hannah and I started Ditch the Umbrella. In that time we’ve reflected, mulled, and written about our emotional calendars, and, hopefully, gained a deeper understanding of what boosts our moods and where our emotional hotspots lurk. But now that we’ve completed a full seasonal cycle, we’ve completed our original mission, and so we will be concluding our little experiment. This will be my last blog post, and Hannah’s final reflection will be coming soon.

I, at least, have made changes to the way I live because of these little revelations: last winter, my worst season by far, I had such a bad case of cabin fever that I resorted to a frenetic and uncoordinated evening playing my roommate’s DDR (Dance Dance Revolution). This year, in an effort to prevent bad dancing, I’ve joined a gym so I can have an outlet for my energy when the days are short, the nights frigid, and the sidewalks nearly unwalkable.

The DDR incident, as I’ve come to think of it, taught me that I need to find ways to enjoy the winter sun, even if my face becomes an icicle. So this year, I plan on returning to cross country skiing, and may even try some winter hiking. (But only if I can start a snowball fight somewhere along the way.)

And I’ve started cooking, and cooking seasonally — enjoying fruits and vegetables when they’re naturally fresh (though I’ll still eat winter tomatoes, even if they’re nothing like the tomatoes Hannah rushed back to the States for) — and synching myself with the cycles of New England in that way.

But most importantly, I’m aware of my hotspots. Of the energy I feel in the fall that propels me to go-go-go, and to have an adventure. Of my weather obsession, which I no doubt inherited from the women in my family. Of my need to travel in the summer, or feel like I’m missing out on something. Of the amount of sleep I need to feel well rested and ready to go, especially when the hours of daylight are limited. Of the joy the holidays bring me with their carols, gingerbread, pine, and good cheer. Of the frustration I feel in the middle of winter, when I just can’t think about slipping on ice yet again. And of the things I can do to make the most of these experiences, and to revel in the joys each year brings.

Thanks for reading.

Late afternoon on the rails, Peru

Weather: Cloudy and unseasonably warm. Over 60 degrees in Cambridge.

Mood:

Anna: 6 out of 10. Energized, but slightly sad to be saying goodbye to DTU. A bit nostalgic.

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Unlike Hannah, I’m not in grad school, and I’m no more busy than I usually am this time of year. But the past two months have flown by, and though I’ve been enjoying the experiences of the fall, I’ve been less focused on seasonal transitions, and more consumed by larger life changes.

Travel this summer took me to France, Switzerland, China, and India — and scooped me away from  New England for nearly the entire month of July. Adventures were followed by the utterly practical task of moving, almost as soon as I returned home.

I blinked, and summer was over.

But rather than turning to autumnal activities like pumpkin carving and cider drinking, I’ve been focusing on the very real task of painting my apartment, unpacking book boxes, figuring out what’s missing, and what no longer belongs. This is a routine I’ve played out many times now, but each time it becomes a little more complex.

In boarding school, I had less than a car-full of stuff. My Compaq computer was anything but compact, and took up the majority of space in my dad’s car. Furniture was provided by the school, so all I needed was clothing, linens, class supplies, an alarm clock, and a phone. My decorations were iconic French advertisements that I had purchased in Montmartre while feeling oh-so-sophisticated the summer before I first went to Exeter and a smattering of postcards I had collected over the years. Each year I had a new room, a new space to make my own.

College wasn’t much different, until my sophomore year when I decided to move into a “luxury” duplex (think big, boxy, and boring) 2 miles from campus. I painted my room, moved a bunch of furniture from home, and 10 months later, it was time to paint the walls back and move the furnishings out. My stuff sat in storage for the next few years as I lived in tiny collegetown apartments that didn’t leave much room for decoration and always came with a few dusty, scratched pieces of furniture. I would live in one place for 10 months, then another for 2 months, never setting down roots. Those posters from high school came with me wherever I went — whether it was for a year or a few months — and provided a sense of continuity, of familiarity.

By now I’ve lived in the city for almost 3 years, 2.5 of which were spent in my first apartment. Now that I have an apartment I adore, I want to live in a space that reflects who I am now, and not who I was — or wanted to be — when I was 14. And so I’ve started down that unfamiliar path of settling into a more permanent place, enjoying the surprises it often brings, and fondly remembering those other, earlier fall days when I was taking stock of new dorm rooms and unpacking my posters.

Weather:
A beautiful, sunny fall day at 63 degrees in Cambridge. Austin is a summery 84 degrees.

Mood:
Anna
: 7 out of 10. It’s Friday and I’m research history in a beautiful library.

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“Hot out today,” the woman at the bus stop said. It was 5 pm. It was 101 degrees. I nodded.

“Hard to believe it’s September,” she said.

That broke my heart a little bit. Because September is my favorite month, and the precursor to my favorite season. September is when the first apples start to ripen on the trees. It’s when the nights turn a little bit crisp and there’s the scent of fall in the air. In September all your notebooks are new, all your pencils are sharp, and your homework is always in on time.

For the last four years, I missed the feeling that you get on the first day of school: the sense that something new and possibly extraordinary is about to begin. As a “young professional” I found it almost impossible to adjust my mental schedule to a lifestyle that disregarded the academic calendar. I thought that once I was back in school, that sense of disorientation would disappear.

I was wrong. As it turns out, going from a 9-5 lifestyle to a 24/7 one isn’t such an easy thing to do. I seem to have picked up some habits in the past four years that I’m not ready to abandon.  Although technically I may be “back” in school, this doesn’t feel like going back at all. It’s not just about my schedule: my relationships with my peers, the pedagogy of my professors, even my homework is different than it’s ever been before. Whatever I’m doing here, it’s something entirely new.

New things in September – that, at least, is a familiar feeling. But at 100 degrees fahrenheit, I don’t think I’ll be getting apples this fall.

Back to the Future. Obviously.*

Weather:
A pleasant 98 degrees at sunset in Austin; 64 degrees and cloudy in cambridge.

Mood:
Hannah: 7 out of 10 on the “can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. Feeling pretty peaceful now that it’s cooled down a bit.

*I think the post title works with the content. Or maybe I just really wanted a picture of a flying car.

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I never imagined hiking the Great Wall of China. Pictures I had seen — the throngs of tourists with cameras, the sea of bodies moving from watch tower to watch tower as the wall darted and rose in the background. But three days ago, I woke early and traveled to Mutianyu, about an hour and a half drive from the Forbidden City in Beijing, where I’d stayed since Tuesday.

We drove through ring road after ring road until we reached a highway I hadn’t traveled on before. In less than 45 minutes, we were passing fertile farm towns where rows of corn stretched wide and the stalks rose high. Willows and poplars lined the road and ushered us past a small river dotted with bridges. Soon we came to a place advertising itself as an “eco village” and one of Beijing’s most beautiful towns. We bounced past once-colorful, now-muted and rusted playgrounds and campgrounds — empty except for a smattering of colorful tables — until we arrived at the busy entrance to Mutianyu.

Tourists have several climbing options: they can take cable cars up to the wall or choose to climb one of the paths, hundreds of steps long, to one of the many watch towers. On the way down, there’s a third option — a toboggan — that looks not unlike a giant twisting slide you would find at Disney World.

I tried to spot the actual wall as I climbed the path, but the trees and the mist obscured the view. Even when I finally ran up the watch tower stairs and swiveled around to see the surrounding land, I could barely make out the rest of the structure in the distance. Visibility was more or less limited to one watch tower ahead of my position. At 9:00 AM on a Friday morning, most other tourists were still on their way to the wall, and with the heavy fog, I could almost imagine I alone kept watch in the towers.

The Great Wall in the mist.

Watch tower.

In less than a half hour, though, the visibility improved and hundreds more climbers poured into the towers and onto the wall. I overhead conversations in Chinese, Japanese, English, French, Spanish, and Hebrew as people from all over the world walked along this magnificent granite structure, originally built by the Northern Qi Dynasty (550–577) and later rebuilt and reinforced by the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

Better visibility.

China is, at once, everything I expected and nothing I imagined. Every which way I look, I find something that fascinates, that spurs my imagination, or that baffles me. In Beijing, at all hours of the day, there are people playing cards on the sidewalk, dancing or practicing tai chi in the parks, or men in public spaces, carefully honing their technique with a giant whip (I filed that under the hybrid “baffling/fascinating” category). And each day, before tucking into bed, I observe the city one last time from the top of my hotel, taking in the tiled roofs and pagodas around me. Until 10 PM, that is, when the lights illuminating the historic buildings of Beijing turn off all at once, snuffed out by some invisible worker.

Weather: Now in Delhi, India where it’s hot, humid, and gray.

Mood:

Anna: 8 out of 10 on my first day in India!

Hannah: Hopefully happy and staying cool after her magnificent travels.

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Although for me summer began as soon as I could ditch my coat and sweater every morning, it’s official start is today, the summer solstice. Many people mark the year’s “longest” day — the day when we in the Northern hemisphere experience the lengthiest period of sunlight all year — but my favorite celebratory ritual is a fictional account from I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (best known for The Hundred and One Dalmatians).

On the morning of Midsummer Day, the narrator, Cassandra, closets herself in the attic of her family’s crumbling castle and reflects on the rites she and her sister, Rose, traditionally perform each June 21:

“Yesterday I instantly remembered that it was Midsummer Eve, my very favorite day, and lay awake looking forward to it and planning my rites on the mound. They seemed all the more valuable because I wondered if it might not be my last year for them — I didn’t feel as if it would, but Rose outgrew them when she was about my age. And I agree with her that it would be dreadful to perform them just as an affected pose; they were a bit peculiar last year when Topaz [her freewheeling stepmother] kindly assisted me and went very pagan. The nicest times of all were when Rose and I were young enough to feel rather frightened.”

In this year of transition, Cassandra is celebrating Midsummer without her sister, and so she gathers wild flowers, braids campion and bluebells into a garland, and weaves roses into her hair alone. Then, as the church bells ring nine times, she piles twigs on top of logs and ceremoniously lights them on fire with a taper. Only when “the whole world [seems] filled with hissing and crackling and roaring,” does Cassandra carry out the ritual and dance and leap around the sacred fire — but this Midsummer she’s joined by an unexpected guest.

Midsummer bonfire in Mäntsälä, Finland. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

I’ve never marked the start of summer in quite the same way, but I like the idea of pausing to reflect on the seasonal transition. I have, however, been to a Swedish Midsummer party with garlands and cake and a feast. Maybe next time I’ll suggest a bonfire.

Weather: Gorgeous, sun-filled day with a temperature around 80 degrees. Currently, a lovely summer night.

Moods:

Anna – 7.5 out of 10. Summer has returned and with it, my energy!

Hannah – Perhaps hiking over sacred mounds or enjoying a roaring campfire. I’m imagining the possibilities…

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I’ll admit it. At the first sniffle, jabby pain at the back of my throat, or cough, I start worrying I’m coming down with something. I’m particularly conscientious of my health in the fall and winter during the back-to-school flu season, but it’s in the summer that I usually get sick.

Last year, it was the (possible) cat scratch fever (long story) that plagued me until the leaves turned orange. The year before that, just as the warm weather greeted the Northeast, I picked up swine flu at BookExpo America (thank you, Javits Center for your recycled air!). This year, it was nothing as dramatic, but, like clockwork, I got slammed at the beginning of June.

On Sunday, I woke up with a telltale scratchy throat. By nightfall, I was cowering in my bed. The virus passed in 24 hours, but I felt sandbagged all day Tuesday, every motion a chore.

Unpleasant recollections of my week with swine flu rushed back to me, and I relived a two-year-old memory: my epic swine flu-ridden walk to a  local convenience store the day I needed more medicine. At the time,  I felt like I had crossed the Sahara (without a camel) while the sun zeroed it on me and laser pointed its rays at my head. Not pleasant. I couldn’t believe a 15-minute excursion had me gasping for air, burning up, and slightly delirious, but so were the joys of H1N1 that summer.

And so, as I walked to work on Tuesday, I thought back to that more excruciating journey two Junes ago, and celebrated the fact that this time, at least, I didn’t have a disease that was terrifying America and parents everywhere. Just a 24-hour bug.

[There’s no song that I know of about swine flu, but here Ted Nugent croons about cat scratch fever, to the delight of the cats in the video.]

Weather: 70 degrees and cloudy. No sign of tornadoes.

Moods:

Anna – 7 out of 10 on the “so miserable I can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. Friday!

Hannah – She’s on an adventure, and hopefully thrilled by the beautiful landscapes around her.

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Botticelli's "Spring"*

Anyone who has read the canterbury tales (and who hasn’t read the canterbury tales!) knows that spring is the time for pilgrimages. After the April rains have washed away the droughts of March, “Then folk long to go on pilgrimages,” as Chaucer says in his infamous prologue. (“Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” for those who care).

It’s been true at least since the middle ages and I think, to some degree, it’s true today. In the spring and into the summer, Rome and Florence (where I am now) come alive with modern pilgrims – folks who have traveled half-way across the world to pay their respect to  their own sacred places. Some come to see the Vatican: walking through the long halls of the museum was like being pushed along by a tsunami of tourists. Some come to see the churches, from St. Peter’s and the Duomo in Florence to the hundreds of less well known, but similarly stunning buildings across Italy. But today, I think, most people come to see the art.

It really is amazing how full of art these cities are. Michelangelo and Rafael, Brunelleschi and Botticelli, Titian and Giotto and so many more than I can name. There is something holy about seeing these objects that I have read about and dreamed of and heard described in literature and film. And there is something about spring – about the unfolding beauty outside – that gives these beautiful works of art particular force.  Chaucer describes it as the world and the spirit coming alive together in spring and I do feel like everything has been coming alive this week, both inside and out.

At the Uffizi Gallery on Saturday we spent a lot of time looking at the painting Primavera (spring) by Botticelli. (See above.) It depicts a version of spring that is full of romance and adventure: a blindfolded cupid, a seductive zephyrus, and the goddess Flora with vines literally pouring out of her mouth. Venus, standing in the middle, looks just like the Virgin Mary and it’s tempting to worship at the foot of this painting like you might say a prayer in a church. Some people go on pilgrimage to honor a particular saint or god. I like the idea of going on a springtime pilgrimage merely in order to honor the spring.

Of course, soon I’ll be starting a pilgrimage of an entirely different sort –  but more on that next week.

Weather: well it’s just about midnight here, but today was hot and sunny: close to 90s at its height.

Mood: 6 out of 10. Exhausted.

Anna – 7 out of 10.

*photo from wikicommons.

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it's summertime!

This is the time of year when things start to change.

One day, there’s frost on the ground, ice in the streams, and dirty piles of snow melting at the edge of the parking lots. The next day, it’s seventy degrees and the sun is shining and, more miraculously, the dead trees that line the streets suddenly start to look like something out of the lorax.

This is the time of year when things start to change. Remember being in school? This is what the air smelled like in the afternoons in the weeks before summer vacation started. It is the smell of Fun Day, and final exams, and those neon ice pops that squirted out of their plastic casings.

When we become adults, the world tells us to suppress the instinct for change as best we can and soldier on as if the year were not dynamic, and cyclical. Fortunately, Anna and I are doing no such thing. Anna is moving with the IPI office to a new, shinier and substantially hipper space. There will be no more racing to catch the train, and no more reverse-commute into the suburbs. It’s an exciting time.

As for me, I’m about to embark on a more long-distance venture. In two weeks I will be departing Somerville for a week in Rome – and if all goes as planned, I don’t expect to return until August. But never fear! I’ll be tracking my emotional calendar from abroad, and filling you in whenever I find myself within internet access.

How are you embracing your desire for change this year?

Weather: Sunny and warm.

Moods:
Hannah: 8 out of 10 on the ‘can’t get out of bed’ to ‘jumping to joy’ scale. I just ate a really great ice cream cone. With sprinkles.
Anna: 8 out of 10.

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New England's Ambrosia**

Every year Maine celebrates a holiday known as Maple Syrup Sunday. In 2008, this holiday happened to fall just one week after I moved to Wiscassett. I celebrated by visiting a local farm, where we toured a syrup barn filled with the heady aroma of maple syrup steam. Then we poured outside to enjoy maple syrup ice cream sundaes and soak up the late March sun.

To clarify: maple syrup is nothing like Aunt Jemimah’s. If you have the misfortune of living anywhere other than New England, you may not be aware of the difference between this sacred syrup and its $2 substitute. As someone who grew up tapping maple trees (my parents have been tapping a red maple for the past fifteen years) I can tell you that there is no comparison.

Maple syrup is made from the sweet sap of a maple tree, which runs only six weeks out of the year, from mid-February to late March. (The season is that weird transition period when the days are above freezing and the nights are below.) You tap the tree by drilling a hole and inserting a metal “tap”: the sap drips out into a bucket or, in my parents’ case, a rube-goldberg contraption involving long pieces of rubber tubing and empty milk jugs. If you’re tapping a sugar maple tree, it may take 30 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup – in my family’s case, my dad estimates that the ratio is more like 40:1.

To make the syrup you put the sap in a giant pot over heat and boil the heck out of it. As the water boils off, the sugar becomes increasingly concentrated. The more concentrated the sugar, the higher the boiling point and the hotter the syrup gets. When it reaches 219 degrees fahrenheit, its ready. If it goes above that, it burns and you ruin the whole batch.

That’s one reason why maple syrup is sacred. But the real reason is the taste. That’s why this year I invited some friends out of the city to celebrate our own version of Maple Syrup Day. The subtle flavor of my family’s syrup is like nothing I’ve experienced anywhere else. Poured over waffles, with fresh fruit on the side, it’s divine.

For me, tree tapping is one of the only reasons to tolerate February. And that first taste of maple syrup straight off the spoon is an early sign of spring.

Weather: 47 degrees and sunny.

Moods:
Hannah: 6 out of 10 on the “can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. Still defrosting.
Anna: A stoic 6.5

**Photo take from the gluten free for good blog, which is actually a lovely blog, although my personal leanings are towards gluten. Lots of it.

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Happy Purim!

When I was a kid, I used to have a picture book called “The Adventures of K’ton Ton.” K’ton means little in Hebrew, and K’ton Ton is a variation on Tom Thumb, only with a Jewish twist. My favorite K’ton Ton story was when he fell into the hamantaschen dough on Purim. My mother says this is impossible because he was “just like a real boy, only tiny,” but as I recall, he was baked into a cookie and popped out just as his mother was giving the cookie away to the neighbors.

Giving away baskets of hamantaschen is just one of the traditions that make Purim the most fun holiday on the Jewish calendar. Purim celebrates the story of Queen Esther, who saved the Jews from the king’s adviser, a man known as Haman the Evil. When we were kids we would go to a party at the synagogue where we were handed groggers (really obnoxious noisemakers) and given the important task of drowning out Haman’s name anytime it was said aloud.

Purim is also a costume party: people dress up as characters from the story of Esther or, really, anything else you can think of. In 2008 I celebrated Purim in Tel Aviv, where it is thought of as an “Israeli Mardi Gras.” That was when I learned another interesting Purim tradition: according to longstanding practice, adults are obligated to “drink until you can’t tell the difference between good and evil.”

Sometimes I wonder whether that’s because of the end of the Purim story, in which the Jews exact revenge by slaughtering entire villages associated with Haman. But mostly I think it’s just an excuse for a good time.

Purim started at sundown last night. I had no wild parties planned this year, but my dad and I did make hamantaschen, the traditional Purim snack. The word “hamantaschen” means Haman’s Hat – Ashkenazi (European) Jews say that the triangular cookies are in the shape of a hat. But I learned today that according to Sephardic (Middle Eastern) tradition, the cookies are said to be shaped like Haman’s ears.

My plan yesterday was to type up a hamentaschen recipe and share it here for Food Friday (okay, Food Sunday). But unfortunately, despite trying two different recipes, we were unable to find one we really liked. Of the two recipes we tried, one was a sugar cookie base made with oil instead of butter, and the other was more like a pie dough, with the butter crumbled in. But the pie-crust recipe, from a cookbook of traditional yiddish recipes, was weirdly textured and required some emergency modification. And the cookie-dough recipe, from the New York Times, didn’t hold its shape and had a strange oily aftertaste. Still fun to eat, but a little disappointing. K’tan Tan would never have approved.

Do you have a hamantaschen recipe that you would recommend?

Weather: sunny and thirty five degrees.

Mood:

Hannah: 7 out of 10 on the “can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. More on the good mood to come later this week!

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